Five years after the events of the last film, relations between humans and apes have deteriorated to open, if sporadic, conflict. Caesar (Andy Serkis) still leads his tribe in the forests of what was once California. Caesar despises the fighting, and shows mercy to his enemies whenever he is able, but the conflict has gone on too long for him to be able to stop it. In order to escape the war, the tribe is planning to migrate to a new home across the desert where the humans won’t find them. But the night before they set out, the humans launch a major attack. Led by the ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson), they slaughter numerous apes, including Caesar’s wife and oldest son. Vowing vengeance, Caesar sets out to confront the Colonel, accompanied by Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). Along the way they meet new friends, including a young mute girl (Amiah Miller) and a chimpanzee named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), and Caesar must confront the hatred of humanity which is growing in his heart.
Much of the marketing material for this film played up the “war” aspect in the title, which gave me some concern as the action parts were generally my least favorite parts of the previous films. Hell, another critic I know even said that he was mostly looking forward to “monkeys on horseback dual-wielding machine guns”. And although the film does have a little bit of that, for the most part it continues the subdued drama of the previous entries in the reboot series. Compared to other big-budget block-buster films, War for the Planet of the Apes is fairly slow-paced, has pretty sparse dialogue, and a huge emphasis on absorbing characters. The action is mostly concentrated at the beginning and the end, but the middle of the film is where its soul really is. When we see Andy Serkis giving his all through the impeccably-animated CGI, when heart-wrenching drama scenes are communicated almost entirely through sign language, when Caesar realizes the possibility that he may become consumed by his hatred the same way his nemesis Koba was, that is when you realize how head-and-shoulders above other blockbusters these new Apes films really are.
Just as in the previous films, the scenes I was most engrossed in were the quiet drama scenes, and all the actors perform amazingly well. Andy Serkis, in particular, really deserves an Oscar for this, although I’ve heard arguments that a new category may be necessary due to the melding of a human actor and animation technology. The other ape actors, who with the exception of Bad Ape do not speak, expertly convey emotional depth through their facial expressions, body language, and signing. Unlike the previous film, this one includes long sections with no human characters on-screen, or no speaking humans in the case of Amiah Miller's character. It's a bold move which really pays off, as you come to understand the apes on their own terms rather than in relation to human characters. On that human side: Woody Harrelson, although occasionally slipping into chewing the scenery mode, admirably portrays a man filled with fear of anything that is different than he is, a character which should ring true now more than ever. And Amiah Miller, at age twelve, has become the second awesome child actress of the year (along with Dafne Keen in Logan).
Of course, none of this acting would be possible without the incredible animation technology used in this film. However, apart from the apes themselves, this film defies the modern Hollywood trend of CGI (More! Bigger! Brighter! Faster!) and keeps its effects mostly subtle, matching the subdued tone of the film overall. It takes guts to use as little FXs in a big-budget blockbuster as this, and I applaud the creators for electing to make such a reserved action film. Even better, the film substitutes any visual oomph lost from the effects with absolutely gorgeous cinematography, with the snow-capped mountains of Alberta standing in for those in Northern California, and features lots of long-takes to show off both the scenery and the effects work that is present. All of this helps to contribute to the muted and even occasionally somber tone of the film.
The film is not quite perfect though. There are a few plots holes that seemed to have been overlooked, it runs maybe a few too many minutes longer than it needs to, and the ending feels a little Deus ex Machina-y. But in the grand scheme of things these are minor gripes. Honestly, it’s well-made enough that after a while you start to forget that you’re watching a film about CGI apes and it just becomes an enchanting and touching…well…human story. I can’t ask anything more than that.